Suddenly, GOP legislators seem to be losing the ‘message battle’

Heading into the final hours of the legislative session, it appears that DFLers finally are winning the battle of messaging.

Or perhaps, it’s just as accurate to suggest, that Republicans fumbled away any message advantage they held by getting tangled up in their social agenda. That political mess became much more difficult to get out of after a truly ugly “prayer” at the start of Friday morning’s House session.

While Republicans were stumbling over themselves, DFLers — either through a coordinated effort or by sheer happenstance — held a series of events designed to move the focus of the legislative session to the impact that proposed Republican budget cuts would have on Minnesotans.

The session, of course, is to end at midnight Monday. But it’s highly unlikely budget issues will be resolved by then between Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

In fact, more and more people think that not only the prospect of a special session but also a government shutdown is becoming more and more likely.

Controlling message to public is key
All of that means that controlling the message is of the utmost importance. Whoever controls the message ultimately could gain enough public support to break a stalemate.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
MinnPost/Jay Weiner
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk started the week by lecturing Capitol reporters for not doing enough reporting on what he said are the most important elements of this session, the impact that Republican cuts would have “on working people.” Reporters, he said, were too busy chasing Vikings stadium and gambling development and political tit-for-tat stories to get at the essence of this session.

Some reporters resented Bakk’s lecture, but few changed coverage patterns. Nevertheless, a seed had been planted.

Following his lecture, Bakk and Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, held a hearing Thursday to air the “real effects” of Republican proposals.

Also on Thursday, the governor met with the Republican House and Senate caucuses, chided them for a lack of leadership and talked again about how he “has moved halfway.” His basic message: It’s now their responsibility to move.

On Friday, the Capitol halls were filled with construction workers, wearing hard-hats and calling on legislators to get to work on creating jobs. (The governor — along with some Republican legislators — has been disappointed at how the governor’s bonding proposal went nowhere.)

Additionally on Friday, Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of Human Services, wrote in a Star Tribune op-ed piece: “The magnitude of cuts the legislature seeks will inflict substantial harm to our social fabric.”

Of course, these are the sorts of things Dayton has been saying since January. But now it appears he has a whole choir behind him.

Nobody in the governor’s office or in the offices of the AFL-CIO or DFL legislators would say this effort was coordinated.

Ken Martin, chairman of the DFL, said that all of this action was a “natural outgrowth” of people frustrated by the lack of constructive action by the Republican majority.

While DFLers and their supporters were reaching out to grab the attention of the media — and, of course, the public — Republicans were stumbling badly.

For months, party leaders had said with conviction that they were “focused like a laser” balancing that budget with no new revenue.

Has GOP social agenda undermined budget message?
But in the last two weeks, leaders either lost control of their own caucuses, or failed to understand how late-session pushing of the party’s social agenda would overwhelm their budget message.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are not publicly accepting the idea that they’ve lost control of the message.

Michael Brodkorb
Michael Brodkorb

Michael Brodkorb, for one, refuses to accept the notion that the Republicans fumbled when they unleashed a flurry of social legislation.

Brodkorb is the man who wears two hats: communications director for Senate Republicans and deputy chairman of the Republican Party. At least some DFLers believe he has one of the strongest voices in the Senate, a suggestion Brodkorb denies.

Did Republicans throw away its control of message by turning to such issues as gay marriage, abortion and guns in the final days of the session?

“It’s absolutely naïve for anyone to think that if we’d had Gov. Dayton and DFL majorities that social issues would not have been front and center,” said Brodkorb.

But he was quick to add that although social issues may have grabbed the headlines, they were not the dominant issues of the caucus this session.

“Even the governor said that the Legislature can multi-task,” Brodkorb said. “We don’t have a messaging concern. The bulk of what this Legislature has worked on is the budget.”


Signs of disarray
But in these crucial, final days of the session, it appears that social issues have thrown the Republican caucus — especially in the House — into at least a little disarray.

The amendment proposal that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman passed in the Senate but its fate this session now appears uncertain in the House.

Two Republicans already have said they cannot support the amendment. At least four or five others are said to be on the fence.

Meantime, there are rumblings that House leadership may not allow the amendment to come onto the floor for a vote in an effort to move the caucus away from the controversies the issue creates.

This morning’s prayer uttered by a homophobic pastor — both the message and the pastor were quickly rebuked by the House speaker — makes it even more unlikely that the marriage amendment will receive a House vote this year.

The cracks in Republican unity over social issues has led some to believe that there may be a handful of legislators who might ultimately be willing to side with DFLers in putting together a budget deal the governor could sign.

The problem that any wandering Republican faces is the activists in his or her home district. To upset the activists could mean loss of endorsement next election.

There are small signs everywhere that some Republican leaders are trying to cool down some of their more hot-headed colleagues.

This morning, for example, the governor met with leaders of several different conference committees.

Among them was Sen. Mike Parry, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the governor. It was Parry, you recall, who walked out of the Thursday meeting Dayton had with the GOP caucuses.

But after this morning’s meeting, as he was walking out of the governor’s office, Parry was pulled aside by Geoff Michel, deputy Senate majority leader and an old hand, before Parry met with reporters.

Parry, who is usually filled with fiery comments, was tepid.

“Best meeting we’ve had,” he said. “Excellent meeting.”

He disappeared, quickly and quietly, down the hall. Republicans seem to understand that the last thing they need at this moment is another headline.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 05/20/2011 - 05:19 pm.

    Knowing their time in office will be limited after their performance in this session the Republicans have followed the social engineering that is going on around the country. They are showing a total disregard for our state and its people. Conservative in their title is a cover up for the real meaning “social engineers”. It was obvious three months ago there would be a special session as the Republicans refused to tackle the issues facing our state in a sensible manner. Their no new taxes baloney will fall on its face. It will take a combination of cuts and increased taxes to come to a sensible solution. Minnesota wasn’t a state looked up to by many because of zealot politicians. It became great because of politician that were willing to compromise to come to sensible solutions. Where have all those Republicans gone. Zealots will never work for the state they will always work for themselves and their deep pocketed friends. The US Supreme Court did irreparable damage to our country and state when they threw open the political giving flood gates. It is no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people. It is rapidly becoming a country only for the wealthy. The voting public must pay better attention to who they vote in every November or this mess will continue.

  2. Submitted by Garrett Peterson on 05/20/2011 - 05:44 pm.

    Nice analysis. It’s good to see some in-depth reporting on the end of the legislative session. You guys are doing a good job!

  3. Submitted by Michael Corcoran on 05/20/2011 - 07:48 pm.

    Hey Doug! Could you at least try to hide your obvious political bias?

    The Republican message? $34 Billion and not a penny more – repeated all the way through the government shutdown and beyond, if necessary.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/20/2011 - 09:27 pm.

    Did the Republicans think they could actually do such MASSIVE damage to the citizens of Minnesota and ALL our state infrastructures and it would stay a secret?

    Only now it begins to dawn on them that they have little chance for re-election. In trying to protect their future endorsement by the dysfons who own their party at every level,…

    They have ensured that the citizens of the State of Minnesota will associate the Republican Party with a completely heartless willingness to protect the rich at the expense of every other citizen of the state,…

    Thus ensuring that, even if they save their endorsements, few people will be willing to vote to re-elect them.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/20/2011 - 10:21 pm.

    I have to agree with Bakk, the media coverage has been particularly dismal this session. We’ve gotten the standard stenographic and shallow coverage.

  6. Submitted by William Pappas on 05/21/2011 - 07:38 am.

    The real question is how were republicans ever able to control the messaging with policies that are so destructive of the middle class and the entirety of the working poor? That’s a fair number of people being fooled. But even those constituents who get their news from FOX are having a hard time understanding the actions of republican legislators who have not worked to create a single job and distracted themselves with stadiums for billionaires and constitutional amendments having nothing to do with the Minnesota economy. It is ironic that if Republicans met Dayton’s compromise with acceptance, they would gain politically for their efforts to govern collaboratively and broaden their appeal with the exception of their extreme right wing base. While democrats govern to the very moderate wing of their party, republicans govern to the most ideological and radical conservative extreme of theirs. The failure to negotiate and compromise is now understood and blame placed where it should be: on the new radicalim of the Republican Party.

  7. Submitted by will lynott on 05/21/2011 - 09:19 am.

    Doug, I don’t know why you’re surprised. the Governor has been ahead on points from the beginning, when he trumped the Rs with his permit streamlining executive order. (Remember how they groused about him stealing their issue?)

    I’ve been watching him outmaneuver them at every turn since the beginning of the session. He began a long time ago to establish his compromise bona fides when he dropped his demand for a tax surcharge on the wealthy after a favorable revenue forecast. He’s insisted from the beginning on having the R’s budget completed before he would negotiate, a most reasonable position, particularly in light of the fact that they got his complete budget proposal three months ago. And so on.

    BTW, did you (and Brodkorb)forget Amy Koch’s pious proclamation at the start that the Rs were “focused like a laser” on the budget and would not be doing social stuff this session? And her later pronouncement that the Rs would not be waiting until the last minute to get their budget work done?

    So the reporters didn’t like Bakk’s lecture?
    Tough. He happens to be right.

    “Hey Doug! Could you at least try to hide your obvious political bias?” – Michael Corcoran

    Tell you what–we may begin to take your bleating seriously when we see you making the same criticism over at freerepublic or powerline. In the meantime, if you don’t like it, don’t read it.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/21/2011 - 10:04 am.

    This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Republicans were never interested in actually governing, elections were always a power vehicle to impose their ideology. The question is why have the Democrats failed exploit this weakness for decades.

  9. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 05/21/2011 - 11:50 am.

    The rich and powerful (and the republican politicians that are beholden to them) have been organizing ever since the New Deal to undermine government obstruction to their unfettered wealth. They have over time successfully built an intricate conservative infrastructure (Fox News just a small part of it) that allows their message to drown out anything that contradicts their goals. Their hubris is now reaching a point where one could be tempted to just let it play out (if so many people weren’t getting hurt). Unfortunately, in this age of lucrative lobbying jobs as rewards, personal greed has usurped political gain as the main impetus for legislative action, so it’s hard so see where this will all end.

  10. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 05/21/2011 - 12:00 pm.

    Excellent article by Doug Grow. I have never seen a reporter come closer to saying that a politician might be right after criticizing the press. Such criticism has a long and bi-partisan history and that is why I think there is something to it. I do think media pay too much attention to the stadia, etc. I am particularly disappointed that MNPOST is allocating resources to following Pawlenty around. Others do that better and more in line with their mission. There has been nothing unique about Minnesota press coverage of him. Those resources could be better spent as Sen. Bakk suggests. Many citizens do not have a picture of what the effect would be of legislative action. Every day sitting in the hearing rooms are interested knowledgeable citizens (including data rich lobbyists) who could be interviewed. This would really bring the legislative process alive-much more so than just asking swarmy questions to Jesse and his successors and the legislative leaders at their “hastily called” press conferences.This is what I was hoping for from MNPOST-something more in-depth and not just following the usual well trod but shallow media path.

  11. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 05/21/2011 - 12:19 pm.

    Considering that Broadkorb re-tweated the false/out of context message by Gretchen Hoffman the other day, it’s hard to take anything he says about being on-message as useful or accurate.

  12. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/21/2011 - 06:45 pm.

    OK, the Republicans have a firm budget proposal. What is in (or not in) that budget? Perhaps some simple, basic reporting would help in this matter (I’m looking at you Minnpost!).

    Beyond that, regarding atmospherics, there comes a point when the obvious contradiction between the “Christian” GOP and it’s social issues as opposed to it’s fiscal issues become apparent to even the most obtuse.

    It’s darn hard to find a Bible that says, “Protect the income of the top 2% because that is where your salvation comes from,” or “Don’t heal the poor and sick if it takes one penny from a millionaire”, etc..

    As I recall, the Bible, Old and New Testament, had much more to say about relieving the suffering of the poor that it did about guns, gays and abortion. According to them, it’s so damn important that government enforce those particular religious beliefs, but hey, the charity explicitly called for in the Bible should be entirely voluntary.

    Just a fundamental contradiction that becomes more obvious the longer the blather about “principles” continue. And, no doubt about it, bogus “principles” lead to the “prayer” that was inflicted on Friday.

  13. Submitted by Lauren Maker on 05/21/2011 - 11:15 pm.

    Sen. Bakk is right on the money. Another great example of the limited press coverage on the legislative actions is the Health and Human Services bill. We’ve heard some lipservice coverage about the cut backs to personal care attendants,particularly funding for family providers. It would be nice if more than Access Press would give us in depth coverage, as they only come out monthly.

    We’ve heard nothing about the proposed total denial of rehabilitation therapies for Medical Assistance for those over 21 years of age. That’s right–if you’re an adult on MA and you have a stroke or heart attack or accident, no physical, occupational or speech therapy for you! Apparently warehousing folks in nursing homes is more prudent fiscal policy. And major red tape is added to get those services for your child.

    Also, deep cuts to state Vocational Rehab Services that help people with disabilities find and retain employment. Yes, sir–focused on jobs like a laser! Your pro-life majority at work.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/22/2011 - 08:54 am.

    Yes, the media has been focused on the failure to reach an agreement rather than looking at the actual content of the bills that’s responsible for the failure. They keep reporting over and over that we have an impasse without trying to explain the impasse. Today they report that both sides are digging in as if both side are equally intransigent. Is it any wonder our citizens are so un informed?

  15. Submitted by Jerry Kersten on 05/22/2011 - 12:19 pm.

    Over many years I have heard politicians proclaim that they are ready to compromise, but it appears their idea of compromise is: I’ll compromise along as I don’t have to change my position at all. Nice talk — no action.

  16. Submitted by Claire Lundgren on 05/22/2011 - 12:44 pm.

    I’m fast becoming an X Republican. The party that used to stand for sound business practices and capitalism is now being dominated by social issues that have little to do with the economy. The DFL has always been known for standing up for the little guy, sometimes at the cost of more money than is available. I don’t fit into either scenario. Is this the beginning of an era for the Independent Party? I prefer to make my own social judgements without government interference and to give voluntarily to help the needy.

  17. Submitted by will lynott on 05/22/2011 - 01:50 pm.

    For a long time now the media has found the horse race much more interesting than the substance of issues.

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